Retail, shopping & leisure

Do-It-Yourself dinner shops

A trend that's storming the US is the idea of the DIY Dinner shop. The concept started in Washington State in about 2002 and there are now almost 700 shops across the US. There is even a trade association called the Easy Meal Preparation Association. So what is it? Basically it's a retail concept aimed at busy working women and urban singles who are too busy to prepare home cooked meals but feel guilty about supermarket-bought Ready to Eat (RTE) meals or take-away foods. The stores, most of which are franchised, are essentially small industrial kitchens with menus and ingredients pre-chopped and pre-prepared. All you need to do is work out what you want to cook, book a time online and then turn up (usually with a few friends) to assemble anything from one week's worth to a whole month's worth of dinners using colour coded or numbered ingredients.The retailer provides the packaging - which includes ingredients, labelling and cooking instructions - and you just take it all home to throw in the freezer. Price wise the meals cost somewhere between supermarket meals and take-out. Key retail brands include Fix-and-freeze dinners and Really Cool Foods (New York), Dream Dinners (160+ locations across the US) and Supperworks in Toronto (Canada). Will the idea work elsewhere? You bet. The concept neatly plugs into a number of major trends including the growth of single-person households, time-starved working mothers and concerns about healthy eating. It could even be argued that the social aspects of the meal preparation are compensation for increasing loneliness or that the hands-on participatory nature of this type of cooking is compensation for lives that are increasingly virtual and remote - or as retail experts would put it 'the socialisation of the retail experience'.
Ref: The Times (UK), 10 June 2006, 'The Next Big Thing - Meal-Assembly stores',D. Rowan. Springwise (Neth), 6 June 2006, 'Family dinners, 24 at a time' and 23 July 2006, 'Meal prep goes up town'. See also
Search words: food, meals, time, singles, nutrition, participation, amateur, meal shops
Links: Rocket foods, leaping salmon

Amazon moves into grocery

It's not widely known, but Amazon has been selling food online since 2003 although only premium gourmet foodstuffs and health-related foods. Not any more. The company has just announced that it has introduced an online grocery store selling about 14,000 different food items - which is about the same as a medium-sized supermarket. Food is Amazon's 34th product category and the move could be seen as being in line with 'long-tail theory'. In other words it makes sense for an online retailer to stock thousands of niche, high-end and regional products that are hard for physical stores to handle. However, the move has many experts puzzled. Companies like Webvan and got their fingers seriously burnt in the 1990s trying to sell bulk foodstuffs with low-profit margins and high delivery costs. So what's different this time? Perhaps nothing, although Amazon insists that it has found a model that works.One idea is linking sales with its Prime delivery service, which costs customers US $79 per year but gives free shipping in return. A smarter idea - which the company is on to - might be the relatively untapped office market for foodstuffs, especially the bulk delivery of dry goods.
Ref: New York Times (US), 24 July 2006, 'After delving into 33 other lines, Amazon finally gets around to food', B. Tedeschi.

The emperor's clothes

Here's an idea to make your head spin. We're all familiar with the idea of online shopping and some of us have even tried to navigate our way around virtual malls. However, it's pretty clear that we're online and there is no mistaking a virtual store for a real one. This may not be the case in the future. An early example of the shape of things to come is a store called American Apparel. Here you can walk around 6,000 square feet of retail space, stroll upstairs and perhaps pick out something you like. If you then touch a nearby information panel this triggers a web page that displays information about the garment - for example, what sizes and colours its available in or perhaps information about where it was made. But of course the store doesn't really exist. Or it does, but this one is only inside the video game called Second Life. The reason that real-life retailers like American Apparel are flocking to virtual stores is that the virtual world is inhabited by millions are real young people who are increasing hard to reach with either conventional marketing or conventional stores. Moreover, these people have real (and virtual) money to spend, either on themselves or their virtual alter-egos or avatars.In Second Life there is also a virtual branch of the Well-Fargo bank and Amazon is understood to be experimenting with ways of connecting real products with virtual worlds. As to where this trend will ultimately go, who's to say, but it's quite conceivable that virtual stores will eventually be indistinguishable from the real thing through the use of 3D-interfaces, wrap-around virtual reality headsets and even experience-enhancing pharmaceuticals.
Ref: The Times (UK), 8 July 2006, 'The Next Big Thing - Virtual World Stores', D. Rowan.  CnET (US), 16 June 2006, 'Apparel brand gets second life'. Business Week (US), 27 June 2006, 'America Apparel's virtual clothes', R. Jana.

Baby hotels

An idea that seems to be catching on is the idea of Baby Hotels. First there was one in Germany called Kinderinsel and now there's another concept open in South Africa.In the case of the latter, babies and small children up to three years old are dropped off (valet parking is available) and put into a specialist play area which includes a secure outdoor garden area. They are then fed and finally put into a nursery (with en-suite bathroom) which features individual cots and cupboards for soft toys and other personal items. The baby hotel is open 24 hours a day, seven days per week. No doubt we'll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing - places for parents to drop off their offspring 24/7 so that they can get on with their busy lives. But what are the social implications of disposing of children when they are simply inconvenient? Will we see 500-room city-centre hotels full of just kids in the future and where exactly is the line between a foster home and a day-care centre? Moreover, what long-term effects will be associated with absent parents and to what extent can retailers or schools be expected to replace parental presence?
Ref: Springwise (Neth), 9 July 2006, 'Baby Hotel (update)'.